La Grande Bellezza. Valentino AW21 Couture

What a show. What a feeling. What a symphony. Celebration of great beauty. Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli set his sublime couture collection in the Gaggiandre, or ship building yard, of Venice. He was drawn to the place’s haunting beauty which he likened to a De Chirico painting with its arches and robust columns. In Renaissance times this place represented the hub of the city’s trading machine, a sophisticated production line that was said to churn out a boat a day. This being Venice and the Renaissance, of course the place – now part of the Arsenale where the city’s art and architecture Biennales are showcased – is as beautiful as it was once productive, having been built (between 1568 and 1573) by Jacopo Sansovino, one of Venice’s most revered architects of the period. Piccioli set his snaking runway under Sansovino’s soaring arches where the ships were once sheltered to be repaired, so that it appeared to float over the water. Guests were bidden to wear white. Luckily everyone did as they were told, and the effect, as the golden light of early evening streaked the water, the stone, tile, and brick, was undeniably poetic. To add to the spine-tingling moment, the collection was serenaded by the British singer Cosima, whose plangent voice gave a powerful twist to Calling You from the 1987 movie Bagdad Cafe, that opened the show. Piccioli brings the ultimate level of gasping wonder to fashion’s color wheel, setting flamingo pink, chartreuse, violet, cocoa, and mallard green ball gowns one after another, for instance. Or he might throw a raspberry double-face balmacaan over darker pink pants and an orchid pink crepe shirt, or a lilac cashmere cape over violet pants, frog green sequin t-shirt, and pea green gloves, and then ground the look with eggplant shoes with the heft of Dr. Martens. These last two ensembles, by the way, are part of the menswear offerings in the collection, in case you were wondering, and very persuasive they were too.

There were 84 looks in the show, and each one was a different proposition, from puffball micro minis, (shaded with Philip Treacy’s giant trembling ostrich frond hats that moved like jellyfish), to trapeze silhouettes, skirts that hit the mid-calf or hovered above the ankle, and slinks of satin and crepe cut to spiral round the body like affectionate serpents. From ball gown to micro mini the effect was one of commanding elegance. The fashion history sleuth will find echoes here of Madame Grès, of Cardin, and Capucci, as well as note taking from Mr. Valentino’s own magnificent oeuvre, but Piccioli takes these iconic moments of design history and makes them uniquely and persuasively his own. Also unique were the artist collaborations, curated by Gianluigi Ricuperati, who assembled a roster of 17 painters, including Jamie Nares, Luca Coser, Francis Offman, Andrea Respino, and Wu Rui. Art and fashion have often united in symbiosis – think of Warhol and Sprouse, or Schiaparelli and Dalí – but here the effect was a celebration of creativity, the hand, and of the nonpareil Valentino workrooms whose talented artisans evoked the source artworks through various cunning means. There were elaborate collages of textiles, for instance 46 in all for Look 6, Kerstin Brätsch’s The If, 2010, (as the Valentino show program notes helpfully noted, alongside the names of the craftspeople in the ateliers who have made them). Meanwhile, the five pieces by Patricia Treib, combined in the ballgown of Look 68, called for 140 meters and 88 different textiles, and took 680 hours to complete. On close inspection even the fine lines of Benni Bosetto’s pencil strokes (Untitled, 2020), that appeared to have been drawn directly onto the pale satin of Look 46, turned out to have been suggested by subtle hand-stitching (a stunning 880 hours of work, if you are counting). The ball gown and cape that closed the show, Look 84, were scrolled with motifs drawn respectively from Jamie Nares’s It’s Raining in Naples, 2003 and Blues in Red, 2004, requiring 700 hours of work, 107 meters of fabric, and custom screens for the hand-printing as it had to be done on such a large scale. The effect was appropriately magisterial. Summing up: total magnificience.

All collages by Edward Kanarecki.

Re-Signification. Valentino Pre-Fall 2021

Pierpaolo Piccioli is busy keeping Valentino’s re-signification going, the line of thought about identity, humanity, and radicalism around which he’s been tailoring his practice since last year. “Today, more than ever, aesthetics are determined by identity,” the designer told Vogue while discussing his pre-fall 2021 collection. “To make Valentino’s codes and values pertinent for today, I want to keep a firm hold on its identity while shifting its signifiers, giving them a new attribution.” What does that mean, exactly? “It means giving a more human dimension to Valentino’s lexicon, less obviously glamorous,” Piccioli said. “Not because I condemn red carpet glamour, but because today, there’s the need of a new warmth, of more humanity. So you have to open up those codes, giving them new life and the freedom to speak through more personal, individual interpretations.” And what is more individual, personal, and human than a portrait? For pre-fall Piccioli lensed the look book himself, with a cast of Italian beauties not all of whom are models, but rather friends and young women “with something to say,” he explained. The collection was intended as a series of individual pieces underlining the unique, non-clichéd humanity of each woman and her non-stereotyped representation of femininity. “The way I approached the shoot was a metaphor of what I’m doing at Valentino,” explained Piccioli. “Models for me are individuals, ‘persone’. This is a moment in time where humanity is paramount. The whole cultural discourse about inclusivity, accepting and enhancing diversities, and the freedom of expressing oneself – it’s just about putting humanity front and center as a non-negotiable social, political, and personal value.” Shot in an empty yet decadent Roman palazzo, with chiaroscuro light giving each image a painterly, metaphysical aura, the collection paid a telling homage to Valentino’s culture of couture, even if it consisted mostly of daywear. Dégradé embroideries in macro sequins, wool knots, and beads; handmade taffeta and lace intarsia; bouillonné rosettes and thread-made appliqués; embellishments made through a complex carving techniques – these and other couture flourishes were lavished on clean-cut coats and capes in double cashmere, everyday pieces of luxurious ease. Red roses, an homage to the famous Valentino flamingo dress, were stitched on a sweatshirt in vermilion cady, while a simple shirt in crisp pale blue poplin was inlaid with individually cut florals selected from different types of see-through lace. Summing up, Valentino’s ready-to-wear hasn’t been in such a good place as now for years.

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Realistic. Valentino AW21

Approximately a year ago, COVID-19 hit Europe. Pierpaolo Piccioli was presenting his Valentino collection during Paris Fashion Week (who would have ever believed back then that fashion weeks will switch to digital?!) and the solemn, melancholic elegance he sent down the runway captured the first feelings of crisis. For autumn-winter 2021, you would have expected some sort of bold, joyful vision of future re-emergence most designers are desperately talking about this season. But surprisingly – especially having in mind his recent, extraordinary couture collection! – Piccioli decided to stay a realist, staying in the black-and-white colour palette. The line-up was livestreamed from Piccolo Teatro in Milan, as a gesture of love and support towards cultural institutions that are having a very tough time with all the lockdowns and limitations. The new season offering wasn’t exactly theatrical, but the dramatic lighting elevated the ready-to-wear silhouettes. Piccioli thought of a modern-day punk attitude with a romantic twist. From the sheer lace evening gowns to over-sized shirts worn as dresses, the collection looks towards the aspect of comfort, but not in a lazy way. Knitted capelets styled with heavy leather boots; ruffled blouses worn with simple mini-skirts (sexy is returning to fashion, as Tom Ford proclaimed); chunky cardigans contrasted with light pumps. Maybe this isn’t anything ground-breaking, but it’s a properly edited collection of clothes women will always want to wear. As for men, Piccioli leaves tailoring behind and decides for equally refined, yet easier wardrobe staples: an over-sized sweater, loosely-cut pants, a chic coat with a cape-like shape. The “net” motif comes in unisex turtlenecks and fantastic eveningwear. While the fashion industry is asking itself the million dollar question of ‘what will sell in the (close) future’, Valentino answers it with the right balance of stay-at-home, Zoom-ready classics and a sense of much-needed ‘dress-up’ for the better times.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Statuesque Beauty. Valentino Couture SS21

Pierpaolo Piccioli is (again) the king of haute couture. With his Valentino spring-summer 2021 collection, he proves that the most elaborate and intricately detailed ball gown of his is equally couture as a seamless, sculpture-like cape (“I don’t want to call it that. It’s not a caftan, or a poncho. It’s a shape!”) with not even one sequin or embellishment. This season, the designer floated towards haute minimalism, which was all about lean sharpness and elevated boldness. It was just so, so, so beautiful and inspiring to see. “It’s more about pieces that will give an effortlessness,” Piccioli said. “The narrative of the collection is the collection itself. No stories. Nothing figurative. I wanted to work on surfaces, not in a decorative sense, but workmanship which becomes the surface itself.” Along came garments that (also crassly) might ordinarily be classified as hoodies, sweaters, shirts, board shorts, and camisoles, acting as foils for amazing lattice-worked coats and sculptural capes. “I think elegance is not about ‘good taste’” said Piccioli. “It’s a bit daring.” And along came men, which was a big treat. At Valentino, “it’s for the very first time,” Piccioli shrugged. “But couture is for people. I don’t care about gendered (fashion). It’s an inspiration which is fluid, no-boundaries: a trench coat is for men and women.” And what a trench coat: structured so that the volume of the sleeves somehow continued seamlessly into a generous, chic storm-flap in the back of the coat. Only haute couture experts can pull off that sort of thing. It used to be that every haute couture look was conceived as a sacred kind of unit. Gone are those days. Now Piccioli is more motivated to make a white poplin shirt, which he showed with a long oyster-colored skirt that appeared narrow in the front, yet flared to a train in back in one of the show’s most arresting moments. “It’s a shirt, a fantastic shirt. Of course you can wear it like this, or any other way. And the skirt is timeless.” Piccioli is right: we’re thankfully long past the time when audiences might work themselves into a pearl-clutching froth at the sight of male models wandering an haute couture runway. Far more to the point is keeping the practice of haute couture relevant to the moment we’re living in. As many of haute couture’s old-world conventions drop away, what remains to be valued is the coalition of high craft and social insight. Piccioli spent a long time reflecting on that in the last months. “To me, the essence of couture,” he said, “is the ritual, the process, the care, the humanity. That’s what makes couture timeless, special.” Summing up: meraviglioso!

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Radical Romantic. Valentino SS21


There was something truly powerful about the feeling conveyed by Pierpaolo Piccioli‘s Valentino spring-summer 2021 collection. It was so heartfelt, sincerere, honest. The line-up was presented for the first time in Milan, not in Paris, which in a way also changed the aura. In a declaration of support for the Italian fashion system and making the most out of the difficult circumstances the pandemic has forced upon us, Piccioli opted for an act of bravery – and bravura. He decided to decamp from the ornate Parisian fabulousness of the Salomon de Rothschild salons for the powerful industrial rawness of Fonderie Macchi, a metallurgical foundry active in Milan from 1936. “In this moment, sticking to an old mindset for me just wasn’t an option,” he said at the post-show press conference. Choosing a venue at odds with Valentino’s typical optics, so deep-rooted in couture, signaled the bold stance Piccioli was taking in the re-definition of the house’s stylistic codes – a process he called re-signification. “I focused on working more on Valentino’s identity than on its aesthetics,” he reflected.  As always with Piccioli, his approach was as instinctual as it was sophisticated; he’ll go down as one of fashion’s romantic visionaries, able to orchestrate moments of true creative enjoyment, both emotional and visually elevated. Romanticism was actually much on his mind while working on the collection. He called it radical. But what does it mean being a radical romantic today? “For me, it rhymes with individuality, with the freedom to express our very own identity and diversity,” he answered. Being romantic means also not following the rules, embracing idealism, being rebellious- fighting for a better world. Believing that things can change: “Fashion for me is a way to talk about the values that matter today,” he said. “The true acceptance of diversity. Tolerance and kindness. This is the world I want to tell through my work as a designer.” If aesthetics can actually suggest something about one’s life, then the collection’s street casting was a celebration of the many diverse-looking people Piccioli wants to include in his narration. Each look was individual, thoroughly chosen according to the personality of the character, young men and women coming from different backgrounds and walks of life. Yet from a fashion standpoint, the collection looked more toned down than usual: streamlined and with fewer of the decorative flourishes and certain hyperbolic gestures of couture. Lace, macramé, crochet, and embroideries were among the textural couture accents reworked here with a crafty, more palpable ‘human’ touch. Both the women’s and men’s lines shared shapes, volumes, and fabrics; the same wardrobe staples were often proposed in identical versions for both genders. Progressing from linear, almost minimal looks, the collection flowed into the ethereal evening options that have become synonymous with Valentino style; here the sophisticated shapes of caftans and cape dresses were designed with fluid, efficient precision. Highlighting a somehow reductionist approach, the only print was a vibrantly-hued floral revival of an archival dress: a glamorous yellow number famously worn by Anjelica Huston and lensed by Giampaolo Barbieri in 1972. Arrangements of wildflowers and plants filled the vast industrial set in a powerful installation by Japanese plant artist Satoshi Kawamoto; Piccioli envisioned it as a disruptive element of beauty inspired by guerrilla gardening’s practice of growing delicate plants in gray concrete spaces – another romantic act of urban resistance. The flowers had a story of their own: originated in eight different countries, they were grown in a nursery in Milan, where they’ll be returned after the show. Piccioli is the modern-day master when it comes to turning fashion shows into emotionally charged moments of visual seduction. Music always serves his purpose well. This time, he entrusted the singer, songwriter, and producer Labrinth to perform stirring renditions of some of his hits. It all worked together in a delightful way.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.